Marion Cotillard's inclusion in the Best Actress race is surely one of the most pleasant surprises of yesterday morning's announcement (given the intensity of reactions across the internet to some of the exclusions from the nominations, some might argue that this was the only pleasant surprise). Though Cotillard did fine with the various critics association awards, the likelihood of her landing a Best Actress nomination seemed pretty remote, particularly after her film Two Days, One Night failed to make the cut for the final round of voting in the Best Foreign Language Film race. Every year the Oscars seem to be based less on merit and more on the "buzz" created by distributors with enough money to launch aggressive campaigns, so it's heartening to see AMPAS voters turn towards a small movie that had no big studio push behind it and make a selection that appears to be based solely on the quality of the work.
Generally speaking, of the two screenplay categories it usually seems like it's the Original Screenplay category that has the slimmer pickings (in part this is because AMPAS' rules regarding what makes a story an "adaptation" are kind of broad), but this year it was the Adapted category that was the weaker of the two. Of all the potential contenders, Gillian Flynn's screenplay for Gone Girl seemed like a sure thing for a nomination, so her exclusion is definitely a head scratcher. Then again, judging by how few nominations the film got across the board, maybe voters just weren't "feeling" the film's acid touch.
Foxcatcher seemed to be losing its heat coming into the home stretch yet ended up with some major nominations, including a surprise nod for Bennett Miller as Best Director. I'm not entirely sure how it is that under the preferential ballot system instituted for the Best Picture category a few years ago a film can fail to land a Best Picture nomination (and in a year where there are only 8 out of a potential 10 nominees, to boot) while still finding enough support to get a Best Director nomination but... I guess that's what keeps things interesting.
Without question, Birdman is a cinematographer's showcase and it was rightly rewarded with a nomination in that category. But surely the fact that the film was able to pull off its "all one continuous shot" premise is due in no small part to the skill of editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, no?
I wasn't as keen as others on The Lego Movie (I liked it, but I didn't find it as amazing as other people seem to have) but I fully expected that it was going to walk away with the big prize. The film not even being nominated didn't even occur to me. I guess this means that now it's How to Train Your Dragon 2's to lose?
I can't really say that I'm "surprised" by how few nominations Selma received, given that I actually only predicted that it would be nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, but I was hoping I'd be proven wrong. While I think that reactions to the film's exclusion have been a bit more dramatic than they need to be, I do think that race played an issue. By that I'm not saying that the exclusion is actively due to racism, exactly, but I do think that the group of voters, whose demographic is almost entirely white and mostly over the age of 60, were probably feeling a bit complacent in that they could point to last year and essentially say, "Hey, a 'black' movie won last year" and then justify that with various other excuses. Selma come out late in the year so it hasn't been widely seen. American Sniper came out later in the year, too, but a crucial difference is that it completed post-production early enough that it was able to get screeners out to voters well before hitting theaters, whereas Selma only completed its post-production at the end of November and got its screeners out too late to get much in the way of support throughout the various Guilds, including SAG, and maybe didn't have time to build traction heading into the final phase of Oscar voting. Not having that support gives voters an excuse (as in, we didn't vote for it but neither did they), and the lateness of the film's release in theaters and via screeners gives them another one, in that voters can say there just wasn't time to see it. This doesn't fully explain how Selma failed to get more nominations - after last year's Oscar telecast a number of voters admitted anonymously that they voted for 12 Years a Slave sight unseen because they felt it would be too "difficult" to watch, but felt it was the movie that ought to win - and part of what I mean by "complacency" is that while Selma has the air of importance, it doesn't necessarily have the air of "urgency." Like I said, there's the notion that a "black" movie won last year so the average AMPAS voter might feel like that's more than enough for the next, like, 20 years. Voters can also justify Selma's exclusion in more categories by focusing on the manufactured controversy surrounding its historical accuracy and depiction of Lyndon Johnson, though I'm not sure how one would do that with a straight face while embracing Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper, all which have "accuracy" issues of their own.
All those things considered, I can't help but think that Paramount should have held on to the film and released it in the fall of 2015, making a run for next year's Oscars instead. On the face of it, that might sound like a losing strategy since "shelved" films tend to develop reputations for having problems, but consider that Foxcatcher was originally set to come out last year (which was a far more competitive year) but delayed its release and now has 5 Oscar nominations. The "controversy" may have existed either way (Oscar campaigning is known to get ugly, after all), but if it had been released in, say, October 2015 it may have had more time to build support and it would also have some remove from 12 Years a Slave's Best Picture win. None of that would solve the institutional problem of AMPAS' lack of diversity, but Selma might have been better served in terms of its Oscar fortunes that way.